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The Case for ... Handling Stress

Last week was so wild, it feels like it's still unfolding.

Jessica Korda makes a 15-footer on the last at the Airbus LPGA Classic in Mobile and wins by a shot. Do you think maybe her tennis-playing father, Petr, winner of the 1998 Australian Open, might have taught her a little something about what it means to seize the moment?

On the men's side, Adam Scott wins the Colonial at a time when people are questioning whether he deserves his ranking as the No. 1 golfer in the world. Rory McIlroy makes the biggest and most difficult decision of his life, then wins one of the premier events of the European tour, the BMW PGA. Colin Montgomerie, the Scotsman with an English accent, after years of futility in major championships and in the United States, knocks off two birds with one stone at age 51, winning the Senior PGA Championship in a remote nook of Michigan.

For Korda, the pressure was on. For McIlroy, off. For Scott, on.

For Monty? Well, he was trying to beat Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer. (Pressure was on.) The Benton Harbor course was not as penal as, say, Winged Foot was for the 2006 U.S. Open. (Pressure was off.) Whether he won or not, he has had a Hall of Fame career. (Pressure was off.) Many, many fewer people were watching, including the drama critics with their pens out. Pressure, on balance, way, way off.

Pressure is good for some players and bad for others. No two golfers are the same. Hallelujah.

Professional golf has gone statistics-mad in recent years, and now we're getting Strokes Gained Driving. (Here's a driving stat for you: If you drive it really long and really straight—Jones, Snead, Nicklaus, Norman, Woods in his prime—that's good.) For the fan, the only meaningful stat in golf is the three-digit number attached to a player's name at the end of the week. The golfer has to figure out what he needs to work on. And the thing he most has to work on is the hardest one of all. And that, of course, is the head.

Which is why last week was such a fascination, and every week is, really. Tour pros can all make the swings. But that doesn't mean they will. The state of one's head shows up in one's golf as it does in few other things. Every swing gives us a glimpse under the hood.

Lee Trevino had it in his head that Augusta National didn't suit his low ball flight, and that he wasn't really welcome there anyhow. Bulldinky! He should have won there. His head got in the way. Ben Crenshaw won two majors: the 1984 Masters, shortly after he and his wife had agreed to divorce, and the 1995 Masters, days after he had buried his golfing mentor, Harvey Penick. Coincidence? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Some have been critical of McIlroy for his decision to break off his engagement with Caroline Wozniacki after the invitations had gone out. I don't get it. Should he go through the single-most important event of his young life because of the pressure of public expectation? After he sorted through that, the decision between a cut 7 and a hard 8 had to look simple.

Rory had another thing going for him at Wentworth, a piece of America in the London suburbs: wet fairways. There's no softness to McIlroy's driver flight, and his two major wins, the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and the '12 PGA Championship at Kiawah, came on wet, grabby fairways. Now the third-biggest win of his life came in similar conditions. Does that mean if Pinehurst, site of the U.S. Open, is playing long and soft, he will give himself more of a chance in his head? He shouldn't, but he probably will.

In golf, as in life, the most important messages are the ones you develop in your head. In the end only McIlroy could know whether it was the right time for him to get married and whether Ms. Wozniacki was the right person. The best golfers rely on nobody but themselves. If there's anything that makes them heroic, it's that.

Did you happen to see Lee Rinker's scores at the Senior PGA? He's a club pro from South Florida, and his brother, Larry, played the Tour for years. Lee posted 69--83. He went from maybe contending to missing the weekend. What happened there? Golf happened. More's coming.

After he sorted through that, the decision between a cut 7 and a hard 8 had to look simple.